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Rush Limbaugh’s limp quasi-apology to Sandra Fluke isn’t good enough. Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio station owner in the US, should fire him and establish a precedent whereby media commentators understand that misogynistic language and attitudes are unacceptable and career-ending. An apology from Mr. Limbaugh is insufficient and unacceptable if we are serious about women’s rights, equality and ability to participate in civil public discourse. Listening to Limbaugh talk about Sandra Fluke was #Mencallmethings 101.
Why is our nation even having this conversation about this man and his sexist abuse? Replace anything that Rush Limbaugh said with its ugly racist equivalent…Right. Moving right along. The entire planet has spent the last two hundred years coming to terms with the implications of race and class on society. Now some people are having the dawning realization that gender is salient too. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk are rooted in a dying paradigm. It is so time to bid it farewell and this is as good a start as any.
First, Limbaugh did not “just,” as he claims, “illustrate an absurdity with the absurd,” and “choose the wrong words.” He used vitriolic hate speech in an attempt to belittle and degrade a woman, and by extension most other women, while discussing a serious issue in a public forum. Jack DeGoia, president of Georgetown University, said in his letter of support for Fluke, “This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression.” The use of the word “slut” to put a woman in her place, the dominant Republican party-theme this primary season, should be as unacceptable as once-but-no-longer-acceptable racist equivalents. Thank god Sandra Fluke is not a woman of color or this could have been even uglier. In addition to the language itself, there was Limbaugh’s request that she videotape sex and share it for his consumption. This, I agree, is absurd – but not in the same way Limbaugh meant it. He actually uses the following phrases in his apology: “What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line?” and not in an “attempt to be humorous.”
Second, he’s not just an “entertainer” he’s an influential “MissRepresenter” and it is causing serious problems for our country. To claim, as Rick Santorum did, that Limbaugh is an entertainer and by extension not important or culturally relevant is disingenuous to say the least. But, Limbaugh is not the only media misogynist out there and firing him would be an important precedent. Remember Ed Schultz’s “right-wing slut” episode last year? Media commentators on the left and the right regularly ridicule and insult women in mean-spirited, highly gendered ways and laugh it off as lame attempts at humor. Consider what happens to women politicians if they have the audacity to appear on television or radio and take strong, confident positions on anything other than domestic work. A recent study revealed the degree to which sexism undid Hilary Clinton’s presidential chances. The sexist ways that women candidates are discussed are endless: Sly jokes about brooms, mops, dusting rags abound; references to nut-crackers, ball-breakers, harried husbands; nags, bitches, ‘hos, bimbos, “boobgate” on and on and on. Widespread acceptance of misogynistic language and public sexist bullying is a serious problem to equality and a deterrent to women’s running for office. Sexist language is as offensive as racist language, but it is still acceptable in our culture. That is unacceptable. Can you imagine what people would say if media commentators, analysts and reporters had, as Jeff Greenfield has pointed out, talked about President Obama shining their shoes the way the joked about Hillary Clinton doing laundry and vacuuming?
Third, Limbaugh only said out loud what lots of social conservatives think about Sandra Fluke and all women who defend women’s rights. (And, if they’re sluts, well, that must make any man that shares their beliefs “gay,” right?) The only way you can celebrate a Momma Grizzly is if you denigrate a Feminazi Slut. Traditional ideas about men, women and their “complementary roles” rely on Madonna/whore stereotypes. Slut-shaming is par for the course in the time-warp, backlash environment that regressive social conservatives want to reinstate. It’s how Herman Cain could believe he hadn’t done anything “inappropriate” and have an entire army of people defend him against allegations of obvious sexual harassment. Limbaugh’s mansplaining is just another flavor of the responses to his assault on Sandra Fluke from the leaders of the Right.
John Boehner: “inappropriate.”
Rick Santorum: “…an entertainer can be absurd.”
Mitt Romney: “not the language I would have used…”
These men, and Limbaugh’s core audience, don’t fundamentally disagree with Limbaugh and are having a hard time drumming up convincing condemnations of his behavior. “Inappropriate” would be if Limbaugh wore blue jeans to a black tie wedding. “Absurd” would be if he’d claimed aliens had used nanotechnology to encrypt his brain with slut-shaming memes and he had no control over what he said. And, as Maureen Dowd asked earlier today, what’s the right “language” to call a woman a slut? Republicans who understand what the real problem this poses for their party must be thanking god for George Will today.
Lastly, Limbaugh’s apology appears, to say the least, cynical. In the first place, I agree with Pat LaMarche, who made the point that all this press is good for Limbaugh and Clear Channel. But, in terms of the apology – no one takes it seriously and that’s a slap in the face to all women. Did no one ever teach him as a child how to apologize? It is arguable that what saved Ed Schultz job last year was his apparently genuine unqualified remorse for what he called his “terribly vile” behavior. Not only does Limbaugh seem to feel no remorse, but he continues to defend himself. As pointed out by writer Rachel Larris at the Women’s Media Center: “In a statement of 192 words long Limbaugh uses only 55 words to say he was sorry and the other 137 to continue to argue that he’s actually right.”
I am not in favor of the “take him down” approach to people or problems. And, as a woman feminist writer I am particularly careful about how easy it is for my words to be turned against me by a media culture steeped in 30 years of backlash against feminism. But, this man and his attitudes are not just harmless entertainment. Even if the senior management of Clear Channel doesn’t understand what the big deal is, they must have at least one person in their Marketing Department that can explain what the future looks like and Rush Limbaugh is not it. So, even if it’s for selfish profit reasons, do the right thing and fire Rush Limbaugh. It would give “Pink Slip” a whole new meaning.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, The Good Men Project and Alternet. Her work focuses on pushing academic feminism into mainstream critiques of popular culture, through satirical humour and news analysis. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, and studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.